How can I leave work on time and still seem committed?

Your question

I am lucky enough to work in a job I love on a flexible arrangement. But, in order to collect my son from nursery I need to leave at 5:30pm on the dot. This means that I sometimes need to miss meetings, and am pretty much always the first to leave the office. How can I ensure that my company knows I am still committed to my work?

Our answer

Don’t worry, you are far from alone in your dilemma. We recently ran a seminar on maternity comeback coaching for coaches and employers at the University of Hertfordshire. And out of 28 themes up for potential discussion, how to leave on time and still be seen as committed was the subject participants honed in on. 

The question also comes up time and again when working in a coaching relationship with maternity returners – it’s usually on the mind of anyone who is switching to a flexible style of working that goes against the cultural norm of their organisation.

But mostly, it’s on the minds of mothers, and is likely to stay that way until it’s equally likely that a man is primarily responsible for caring for their offspring. Or that our culture supports (and even expects) care to be shared evenly.

How to feel better about leaving work on time

Going against the grain has never been easy, but it can be more comfortable. And to help you feel better about leaving on time, I have some suggestions of ways you can manage the perceptions others have about your commitment as a flexible worker.

Challenge your perceptions

Try to remember that at least some of the (negative) perceptions you believe others’ have about your flexible working patterns are all in your mind. Unless they have actually voiced a concern to you or your manager, it may well be an unfounded fear on your part.

Discuss flexible working as a team

Firmly suggest that flexible working is put on your next team meeting agenda and ask your colleagues to be honest about opportunities and concerns they see with changes to the way you work.

Use this time to demonstrate how you can mitigate potential problems and how there in fact may be upsides for the team. For example, perhaps you’ll do early starts or late finishes that could be of wider benefit?

By getting the topic out in the open and ‘thrashing it out’, you’re essentially asking colleagues to put up or shut up. Once it’s done, you can then have licence to just get on with doing a great job, flexibly.

Think ‘I’m a role model, a culture-shaper’

Don’t apologise or demonstrate body language that suggests you are doing something wrong when you leave the office while others are still at desks. You may be doing something different to your colleagues, but that isn’t the same as ‘wrong’.

And remember that some people may be watching you and essentially thinking ‘there goes a role model – that gives me permission to do it too.’

Offer alternative communication channels

If a colleague tries to catch you on your way out (and you’re already wondering if you’ll make pick-up in time) say you’ll be happy to carry on the conversation by mobile. If you need to, signal you’re going to dial them as you continue moving toward the door.

Demonstrate the benefits

Remind your colleagues of the research around the positive correlations between flexible working and commitment. Find a way to drop a few facts from research conducted at Cranfield University by Clare Kelliher and Deirdre Anderson into your conversation.

The research found that flexible workers record higher levels of job satisfaction and organisational commitment than their non-flexible counterparts – a fact that is probably due to social-exchange theory where the ‘flexee’ responds to the granting of flexibility by exerting additional effort.

See the longer view

And finally, if you’re still feeling on edge, imagine you are leaving one office to walk to another to carry on the day with a client, colleague or to work quietly in isolation away from the distraction of an open-plan space.

You might smile as you walk out, pondering how ridiculous your children and grandchildren will find these tales of furtive escape from the office in years to come when the working world has evolved some more.

Answered by Jessica Chivers, the managing director of The talent Keeper Specialists and author of Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work (Hay House, 2011). Jessica also writes a regular blog.

You can also download a pdf version of this article, with tips on how line managers can shape an inclusive environment.